In the room where I teach, on the wall behind where I sit, hung so that my students can see it just over my left shoulder, is a framed quote: “Practice may not make perfect but it sure as hell makes for improvement.”
The quote is from Pete Seeger, found in the introduction to his children’s picture book Abiyoyo (1985).
On May 3, 1919, in New York City, Charles and Constance Seeger welcomed their third son, Peter, into the world. At the age of 8, Pete learned to play the ukulele. When he was 13, he took up the 4-string banjo and then switched to 5-string banjo when he was 19. When Pete was around 21, Huddie Ledbetter taught him to play the 12-string guitar.
In March of 1940, he gave his first concert performance. He went on to perform and record as a member of the Almanac Singers and then the Weavers, who in 1950, had a #1 hit record with their version of “Goodnight, Irene.” As a solo performer, Pete sang and played for decades in schools, coffehouses, concert halls, on college campuses and in all sorts of venues across America and around the world; inspiring countless numbers of people, young and old, with folk music.
From 1957-1962, Pete recorded a five-album series for Folkways Records entitled “American Favorite Ballads.” In 2002, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings began releasing the series on CD in five volumes. Listening just to Volume 1, I am enthralled by and thankful for the incredible, timeless songs that Pete has preserved. “John Henry,” “Shenandoah,” “Home On The Range,” “Oh, Susanna,” “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Frankie and Johnny” to name a very few. His renditions are joyous, alive and though the songs are for the most part simple, he makes them “vibrate and sparkle with the life that is within them.” (From: The Folksinger’s Guide To The 12-String Guitar As Played By Leadbelly: An Instruction Manual by Julius Lester and Pete Seeger, 1965)
Last August, not long after celebrating his 90th birthday with a star-studded concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Pete took to the stage again. This time it was at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI, for the first night of George Wein’s Folk Festival 50, a two-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first Newport Folk Festival (which Pete helped organize and also played at). And, thanks to my amazing wife and the best Father’s Day/birthday present ever, I, as I kept incredulously telling myself, was there.
As Pete strode on stage, with his banjo in one hand and 12-string guitar in the other, the 9000-plus in the audience stood and roared in excitement and wonder and with much love. Starting with the 12-string, he picked out the notes of the melody of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and, after apologizing for not having much of his singing voice left, turned the singing over to us, lining out the lyrics as we went along.
His next songs paid tribute to his old guitar teacher (“The Midnight Special”) and Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies”). Then, line by line, he taught us his song “Take It From Dr. King.” The stage soon filled with the other musicians who had played during the day at the festival, and the evening air was filled with sing-along after fabulous sing-along: “This Little Light,” “Guantanamera,” “Worried Man Blues,” “If I Had A Hammer” and the finale “This Land Is Your Land.”
That was Saturday, August 1st, 2009. The next night, Sunday, in the rain, he and about 7800 of us, did it again.
If you want to hear Pete Seeger, his Greatest Hits CD on Columbia features his original songs and the American Favorite Ballads series on Smithsonian Folkways features all those great old folk songs. If you want to see Pete Seeger, the DVD Pete Seeger: the Power of Song is outstanding and if you want to read about him, How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger by David Dunaway is the definitive biography.
Happy 91st Birthday, Pete Seeger. Thank you for everything.